Should Americans torture?

Posted on May 14, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Time for a civics lesson.

The reaction to finding out that Americans tortured prisoners of war at the Guantanamo prison and in Iraq, and seem to still be using torture now in the Middle East has been a debate over whether torture produces valuable information. That is, do the ends justify the means? Is it worth our while to torture prisoners?

(I have to take a moment here to say torture. Not enhanced or harsh interrogation. We’re talking about the same torture techniques used by the Nazis. Torture.)

This is unfortunate and un-American. The question is not whether torture works. The question is, do the founding principles of the United States support torture? And the answer to that question is no.

Torturing people—prisoners, criminals, anyone—is unconstitutional. It is a violation of the human, civil, and natural rights this nation was founded to preserve. The U.S. has never condoned torture, including during wartime. One of the things that set us apart from the fascists we fought in World War II was our refusal to torture. We upheld the law even in very difficult circumstances. There was no torture of Nazi prisoners by American guards at Nuremberg.

Recognizing the especial temptation to torture enemies captured during war, the U.S. signed on to the 1949 Geneva Convention outlawing the torture of POWs.

One of the principles we are supposedly fighting for in the “war on terror” is the need to uphold human and civil rights. We cannot do that if we violate those rights.

So the end does not ever justify the means when it comes to torture. The “they did it first so we get to” argument often employed to support torture is hardly convincing. As Americans, we are dedicated to the principle of not sinking to the level of terrorists and war criminals. We have passed laws to prevent police officers from torturing confessions out of suspects. It is illegal to torture American prisoners in jail. We have agreed, at Geneva, to laws preventing torture of POWs.

Dressing torture up as “harsh interrogation” or “enhanced” interrogation makes it easier for Americans to condone “some” torture “sometimes.” But we cannot afford, as Americans, with our history, to use Nazi torture techniques—on anyone. Philip Zelikow, of the U.S. State Department, testified to a Congressional subcommittee on May 13, 2009, on torture by Americans and said this:

“The U.S. government, over the past seven years, adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one.”

Coldly calculating torturers—is that how we think of ourselves as Americans? under any circumstances? No. We have not in our history ever officially condoned torture under any circumstances, including war. The only Confederate official put to death after our Civil War was the commandant of the Andersonville prison camp—for torture. It is not a part of our history, nor does it suddenly need to become so. Any goal that can only be achieved through torturing people is not a goal worthy of the United States.

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A Duty to your country

Posted on May 8, 2008. Filed under: U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

I was listening to retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez on the radio yesterday, talking about his new book in which he details the Bush administration’s “catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” in Iraq. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Some senior military leaders did not challenge civilian decision makers at the appropriate times, and the courageous few who did take a stand were subsequently forced out of the service.  …I observed intrusive civilian command of the military, rather than the civilian control embodied in the Constitution. I saw the cynical use of war for political gains by elected officials and acquiescent military leaders. …I also understood that, while on active duty, the Uniform Code of Military Justice precluded me from speaking out against my superiors while in uniform. If I valued my oath—and I did—I had to comply. Since leaving the service, however, I have been encouraged by both civilians and retired four-­star military officers to write about my life, my career, and what really happened on the ground in Iraq. I believe now is the right time.”

It has become commonplace now to have military officers come out with “Iraq was a disaster” books as soon as they retire. Each time, they excuse their failure to live up to their duty of serving their country by saying they had to live up to their duty of remaining loyal to the military chain of command.

Sanchez himself, in this excerpt which I assume he chose or approved of, says at once that he saw the Constitution of the United States being violated, but that the oath he swore never to contradict a military superior was more important than upholding the Constitution.

As I said, Sanchez is hardly alone in this. Over and over, we ask military leaders–generals–why they didn’t do something to protect U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians, why they didn’t tell the American public what was really happening in Iraq, and why they are only speaking out once they have no power to do anything. And always the answer is that they swore a sacred oath not to tell the truth if it rocked the boat of military command.

It is clear that there is a confusion about what U.S. soldiers are sworn to do. They are sworn to uphold and defend the principles, common good, and safety of the United States. If the commands they are given do anything to degrade or endanger the U.S., they have a sworn duty not to obey those commands.

Any soldier can say “I had to follow orders”. That was the defense offered by many fascists after World War II. Americans tore that defense to shreds at the time. If you are in the U.S. military, and you receive an order contrary to the Constitution of the United States, you don’t follow the order. Your ultimate duty is to your country, not your unit, your general, or even the military as a whole.

Someone as high up as Sanchez, and all the other generals, certainly faced less danger of being silenced without recourse to the press. It’s a pretty lame passing of the buck to say, “I was in charge, but I still had to follow orders.”

My ancestors have fought in every American war, starting with the Pequot War in 1637. (This does not mean I think they were all good wars.)  I have relatives in the service right now. So I’m not anti-military. Rightly used, our military is a great force for good.  But I am pro-Constitution. It’s time that U.S. generals speak out against violations of our Constitution and against reckless endangerment of our soldiers while they are still able to do something about it. That’s “the right time” to tell what you know. That’s the real oath they take.

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